Toward the end of 2019, I noticed a trend on social media of people attempting to quantify in some way the previous decade. There were a lot of lists of “my biggest accomplishments of the past ten years,” that kind of thing. I think it’s natural to want to quantify how we’ve spent our time, to look back, take stock, and find something substantial there—a positive measurement. Enumerating all the wonderful things we’ve done makes sense for the distorted world of social media, where we tend to only post what reflects positively on us. But today’s poem and story, in considering time spent, both look closely at not only what their narrators did but also what they failed or declined or were unable to do.
Burning the Old Year
Letters swallow themselves in seconds.
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.
So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.
Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.
Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.
—Naomi Shihab Nye
Who is this lady?
Naomi Shihab Nye was born in St. Louis in 1952 to an American mother and Palestinian refugee father. Today, she lives in San Antonio and says that her poetry often begins close to home, in that she finds inspiration in the voices of her neighbors. However, she also thinks of herself as a “wandering poet” and has gone further afield in her work, writing about conflict in the Middle East. Since 9/11, her poetry has addressed prejudices against Arab Americans and sought to find connections amid cultural differences. She also translates poetry and has written essays and books for children.
Number of refrigerators I’ve lived with: 18. Number of rotten eggs I’ve thrown: 1. Number of finger rings I’ve owned: 3. Number of broken bones: 0. Number of Purple Hearts: 0. Number of times unfaithful to wife: 2. Number of holes in one, big golf: 0; miniature golf: 3. Number of consecutive push-ups, maximum: 25. Number of waist size: 32. Number of gray hairs: 4. Number of children: 4. Number of suits, business: 2; swimming: 22. Number of cigarettes smoked: 83. Number of times I’ve kicked the dog: 6. Number of times caught in the act, any act: 64. Number of postcards sent: 831; received: 416. Number of spider plants that died while under my care: 34. Number of blind dates: 2. Number of jumping jacks: 982,316. Number of headaches: 184. Number of kisses, given: 21,602, received: 20,041. Number of belts: 21. Number of fuckups, bad: 6; not so bad: 1,500. Number of times swore under breath at parents: 838. Number of weeks at church camp: 1. Number of houses owned: 0. Number of houses rented: 12. Number of hunches played: 1,091. Number of compliments, given: 4,051; accepted: 2,249. Number of embarrassing moments: 2,258. Number of states visited: 38. Number of traffic tickets: 3. Number of girlfriends: 4. Number of times fallen off playground equipment, swings: 3; monkey bars: 2; teeter-totter: 1. Number of times flown in dreams: 28. Number of times fallen down stairs: 9. Number of dogs: 1. Number of cats: 7. Number of miracles witnessed: 0. Number of insults, given: 10,038; received: 8,963. Number of wrong telephone numbers dialed: 73. Number of times speechless: 33. Number of times stuck key into electrical socket: 1. Number of birds killed with rocks: 1. Number of times had the wind knocked out of me: 12. Number of times patted on the back: 181. Number of times wished I was dead: 2. Number of times unsure of footing: 458. Number of times fallen asleep reading a book: 513. Number of times born again: 0. Number of times seen double: 28. Number of deja vu experiences: 43. Number of emotional breakdowns: 1; Number of times choked on bones, chicken: 4; fish: 6; other: 3. Number of times didn’t believe parents: 23,978. Number of lawn-mowing miles: 3,575. Number of light bulbs changed: 273. Number of childhood home telephone: 384-621-5844. Number of brothers: 3. Number of passes at women: 5. Number of stairs walked, up: 745,821; down: 743,609. Number of hats lost: 9. Number of magazine subscriptions: 41. Number of times seasick: 1. Number of bloody noses: 16. Number of times had sexual intercourse: 4,013. Number of fish caught: 1. Number of time heard “The Star Spangled Banner”: 2,410. Number of babies held in arms: 9. Number of times I forgot what I was going say: 631.
Who is this guy?
I could find very little information on this writer! Which is fine—this newsletter is not only for showcasing famous people, and there are excellent writers out there who maybe got only a couple pieces published in their lifetimes. I don’t remember where I first encountered this story, though I’ve read it and shared it with classes many times because it always provokes a lot of discussion. We talk about whether this is a story, and if so, what the story inside this list is; we zero in on the items that seem the most revealing about the narrator, and consider what the numbers can tell us. As spare as this story is, as much as it lacks a conventional plot, I have a clear picture in my head of who this narrator is, what he feels, what his life has been like.
Make your own version of “Subtotals,” whether for yourself or a fictional character.